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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Wendell Kim — Rounding Third and Heading Home


The most exposed coaching position in professional baseball or arguably, in all of sports, is the third base coach.

Second-guessing managers is an integral part of game analysis that gives sportswriters, talk show hosts, and fans endless topics to debate. But the split-second decisions made by third base coaches are even easier to dissect because the results, particularly those that don’t work out, are so obvious.

Why did he send the runner who was so easily thrown out at home?  What was he thinking? The answer usually lies not in the coach being incompetent but with the runner not picking up a sign quickly enough, not hustling or not sliding. Sometimes a runner is thrown out simply because of a perfect relay, that more times than not will not occur.

But in 2004, something strange was happening when Chicago Cubs runners began getting thrown out at the plate with increasing frequency. Windy City fans and media unloaded their frustrations on veteran third base coach Wendell Kim, who previously held the same position with the San Francisco Giants and the Boston Red Sox.

After the season, Kim’s Major League contract was not renewed nor was he offered another job with the organization. After a year of managing a rookie league team for the Washington Nationals, he found himself out of baseball.

As it turned out, the reason for his sub-par performance on the field that season, and for some uncharacteristic clubhouse behavior, had nothing to do with his competence or judgment, but everything to do with the fact that, unknown at the time, he was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Now 61, WK, as he is known to his baseball family and friends, is in the final stages of this horrible affliction. Unable to walk without assistance, talk or recognize even those closest to him, he has bounced around several care homes and psychiatric facilities in Arizona as his condition worsens.

For his close friends and loved ones, watching WK’s slide in recent years has been incredibly painful and poignant. We’ve seen the man who had a separate set of signals for each of 25 players, and who knew the strengths and weaknesses of hundreds of opposing outfielders, gradually lose the ability to perform professionally or even to do many of the things we take for granted in day-to-day life.

I met WK at the 1993 Giants Fantasy Camp. He was wildly popular among campers for the same hustle he displayed on the Major League diamond where he was known for always sprinting to his position in the coach's box. WK was the most approachable of the camp's coaches. He worked tirelessly with the most skill-challenged camper players, was always willing to go out for a night on the town, or relate what it was like to be on a big-league ball club.

WK and I grew tight immediately. Besides a close personal connection with him and his family, we had in common a love for useful baseball information. WK, along with then Giants bench coach Bob Lillis, were pioneers in using historical data to determine strategies in game situations.

Combining their baseball expertise with my background in statistics and software development, we worked together to organize the data they had recorded either on paper or stored on lightweight electronic devices that lost everything when the batteries ran out.  We placed their valuable player information on more stable hardware, and made it easier to access and analyze with better software tools.

Eventually, I developed a full-blown digital video and statistical-analysis program that was used by Major League players such as Matt Williams and Curt Schilling.  WK introduced me to Matt and opened up countless other doors that allowed me to work in professional baseball, something I never thought would happen given my modest on-field skills.

A renowned hustler both on and off the field [you were a fool to bet against him in pool, golf or pretty much anything else], our conversations always ended the same way, with WK asking: “Do you need anything?”

In a game where those on the field are far too removed from those in the stands, WK was the opposite, always accessible, signing autographs, getting them for you from players, or doing anything else you needed. He hustled everywhere for everyone.

Though his baseball skills were considerable, his hustle and determination played a huge part in getting him as far as he did in the game. He was the first Korean-American Major League coach, as well as a AAA player, coach, and manager. Though he never played or managed in the big leagues, he earned the respect of many who did.

It is unclear whether or not the concussions he suffered as a hard-nosed player had anything to do with the early onset of Alzheimer’s, whose symptoms became evident when he was only in his mid-fifties.

Major League Baseball is growing increasingly sensitive to the long-term risks of concussive injuries and dementia —  However, even the new collective bargaining agreement does not include long-term health care coverage, something you think would be important in a sport where injuries from 90 + mile an hour pitches and on-field collisions are commonplace.

Such coverage is very expensive and many players harbor the illusion that they are physically invincible. However, their agents and union representatives would do their clients a great service by encouraging them to invest a portion of their earnings in protecting themselves and their families from the catastrophic financial impacts of not having it, should it be needed.

So as WK rounds third for his final run home, we should celebrate his life and learn from it. Thank you WK, all the way!

15 comments:

  1. What a wonderful tribute to such an amazing man! Im a good friend of his entire family and have grieved along with his family as his disease has progressed. What a horrific disease Alzheimers is - to rob this talented man of his mind... Wen was loved for his personality as much as his expertise. You might remember that he was also quite the magician and would entertain the opposing teams as well as his own. Oh and to watch him dance - a master showman he was!!
    Thank you for your touching article. You've made him young & healthy in my mind again if only for a brief moment...
    C. Hites

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  2. I played with Wendell in the minor leagues for three years and I could not believe it when I heard he was living in an alzheimers facility. I have tried to locate him with no luck, I was hoping to visit him if it is possible, it sounds like I might be a little late according to some articles that I have come across. If anyone has information as to where he is living I sure would appreciate it. Thanks. My email address is djdrews44@comcast.net

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  3. John,
    I forwarded your post to Wendell's wife.
    C. Hites

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  4. Great article. The mind is just so complicated. It's so tragic to have to deal with this disease. My mom has it too. Wendell was such a nice guy in his "normal state" of mind. My heart goes out to Tash and their son, DK. It's really tough to go through this...this process of slowly losing your loved one. Quite bluntly, it sucks.

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  5. Grew up With Wendell in a small community named Dominguez. He and his brother, Wendell, were the best athletes in our little town. Spent many days at our park with him and his brother playing basketball, football, over the line, etc. Such a travesty to have occured to such a great guy. May peace be with you my friend.
    Ray Yoder

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  6. Thanks for passing the article along Ray ... I too grew up with Wendell and the Kim family in Dominguez ... Being several years younger than Wendell, he was like an idol to me, I was always at our home town baseball field in the 60's and I had the privilege of being the batboy on our hometown "Ramblers" baseball team which Wendell played on in the Long Beach "Joe DiMaggio League", I loved the game and was in awe of Wendell, Kendell and several other of the Dominguez players... Later as Wendell went on to play with the Giants and I became of age to play on that same Rambler team, Wendell always found time to come back and work with us kids a couple of times each season ...
    Living in Orange County now, I would take my youngest son and usually 3 or 4 of his Pony League friends to The Big "A" when the Red Sox were in town, Wendell would always meet up with us after the game(s)to sign balls and talk with the boys for a bit ... We loved watching him hit infield to the BoSox with the dozen or so balls he somehow managed to stuff into his back pockets and then to see him "sprint" on and off the field as he went out to preform his 3rd base coaching duties ...
    While I was a little to young to follow Wendell's Little League career, I did hear rumor the he hit 31/32 homeruns as a 12 year old, a number that is unheard of !!!
    Sending love and prayers of comfort to the Kim's ... <3

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  7. Oh, so many memories. I grew up in Dominguez also and was a good friend of Wendell. He played on the Red Sox (Little League), and I was on the Indians. We only had 4 teams then in the early 60's....We spent many times in his garage, either playing pool of putting on the boxing gloves. As a group of guys from Dominguez, we played a lot of football at Dominguez Park. We also went out to Long Beach, Compton or Carson, challenging other guys in 6-man football. I always tried to get Wendell as our quarterback. He was such a great leader. We NEVER lost a game. His Brother, Kendall (AKA "BOZO"), was also a great athelete. I knew his Sister (Rita). Rita's Son drowned in a bathtub and I was the Paramedic who responded that evening in East Long Beach. Wendell and I also had a good friend named Burton Carter. There are sooooo many tradgedies in life. Kendell died a few years back; I heard Rita took her life; I also heard from Jeff Powell that Burton Carter couldn't take his cancer anymore and ended his life. I am so saddened to know of Wendell's condition. My many fantastic memories will keep me going. My prayers and thoughts are with Wendell, Family and all our wonderful friends. May God Bless all.

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  8. I also had the honor of growing up in Dominguez with Wendell and his family. Actually we lived on the same street, Tyler St. I actually remember the first day he came to Dominguez Elementary as a new student. At that point he was trying to get over the loss of his father who was a boxer and a contender for a title. We sort of had that in common as my father passed away a short time before.
    Wendell was a tough cookie, and was respected by us all. I also played Liitle League with him, at the old fields in the middle of the strawberry fields . Those days are in fondly tucked away in my memories. He was on the Cardinals and I was on the Indians. It was obvious even back then he was special.
    I have followed his career with great pride and my family has felt the same . Baseball is our sport and when Wendell was in town , I would call the hotel where the team was staying and leave him a message that we were coming to Dodger Stadium, He would always search us out and bring the kids balls to the fence and sign cards etc. He made their day! I wish him the best, as he is an individual that will never be forgoten.I feel honored to have known hom and been a small part of his life. He will always be in the best part of my memories.God Bless you WEN.
    From Jess Senters

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  9. I too grew up with the Kim family in Dominguez. Reading the previous posts brings back a lot of fond childhood memories of all the Kim children. Attending Dominguez Elementary School with them, playing Little League Baseball (Yankees) against them, all surrounded by the strawberry fields. We even went to church together as kids! Those good / innocent times are gone...but all the wonderful memories I still have of them will last forever!

    This is truely a sad day for me! Wendell was special...I always looked up to him...he will be missed! This just proves that life is short, and so very fragile! Right now, I am looking at the baseball on my shelf, that he signed for me several years ago!

    My thoughts and prayers go out to the entire Kim family, wherever they may be...especially to "MOM"!

    Gary Fonnesbeck

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  10. My family grew up in Dominguez - though we were all girls so little league was not a part of our lives. We knew the Kim family - Dominguez was a small town and you knew everyone. Life is short as Gary says. Recalling the memories of Dominguez, the fun we had and the friendships we made have made us all who we are. Rest in peace Wendell, may your family know that you had an impact on many.

    Joyce Nickell

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  11. Hello
    I first met Wendell in the early 70s when he was playing 2nd base for the Lafayette Drillers. He became my idol, and I wanted to be just as good of a person as he was. He beacame a personal friend of mine and tought me the basic fundumentals of baseball. He even gave me his personal glove as a souvenir. God Bless You My Friend??

    Byron Glover

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  12. Wow, superb blog with superb information. Thanks a lot for your fabulous work. I am really happy to find your post. I just ordered my baseball ball, Bat, Gloves from at PIJ. however I am the captain of my team and I am really happy as a captain and proud as well.
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  13. John Taylor (J.R.)July 6, 2013 at 11:57 PM

    Thanks for sharing. I just received the news from my mom tonight. She is a season ticket holder to the Fresno Grizzlies. I met "Pineapple" in the early 70's when I was a kid. I was a ball shagger for the Fresno Giants. He would come by every day and pick me up and take me to the ballpark when they had a homestand. He drove a Opal GT. I will never forget that car. It looked like a mini Corvette Stingray. He as well as the above poster John Andrews helped me play better baseball when I was in school.

    My family would take them fishing up at the San Joaquin delta when they had a 3-4 game series in Lodi. One summer the above poster John Andrews brother came out and he also went fishing.

    I remember him telling me on the last night of season in Fresno that he told me that he would leave me a present the following morning in the bushes at my house before he moved back home for the off season.

    I woke up the next morning to find a brown bat with "Kim" and a glove that had "KIM" on it. He also left a "Gary Atwell" bat. I still have the bats. Unfortunatly my ex wife has my glove. He always had time for me. He was like a big brother to me and always cheered me up during my early teens.

    "Pineapple" my thoughts are prayers are with you. I love you man.

    Mrs. Pineapple. My prayers are with you.

    My email address is blaaze3@att.net

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  14. I too grew up with Wendell. I was a couple of years ahead of him, but looked up to him as my big brother. If ever anyone that I've known had an impact on my life... I would say it was Wendell. If someone says hustle, I think of him everytime. He was kind and generous and if you knew him you would definitely learn from him. He was extremely talented in anything he did. We played baseball together from Little League, Pony and Police league on through Varsity High School ball. I was proud to be associated with him on and off the field. Our Varsity coach... Coach Hardy took Wendell, Bill Cupp, and myself aside and told us that a White Sox scout would be at our next game to check us out. I seriously thought the three of us had a shot at the majors. Bill Cupp had his back destroyed by a football coach, I fell in love, started a career, married and had three kids. So as I always new Wendell would excel and do something very special in life. I'm so proud of him, but also saddened by this horrible disease. My Mom is 91and in advanced stages of alzheimers. To see these extremely bright people lose their faculties is so disheartening. Wendell, Kendall, and Rita. Such tradgedy. Such a loss. Our hearts go out to the families. Wendell buddy I'm a better person because of you. May God Bless You And keep you!

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